I was sitting with Mrs Loeng in a pavement cafe on Huai Hai Road, a pleasant, tree-shaded thoroughfare in downtown Shanghai, lined with high-end Western fashion stores alongside traditional restaurants where people were queuing for take-out food.
‘Three years ago these stores were only in the malls, but now they’re on the street,’ Mrs Loeng said.
She shook her head. ‘In Shanghai the young are only interested in foreign brands. Here it’s very normal for a secretary to have a Louis Vuitton bag. Even if she’s only earning 3,000-4,000 yuan [£300-400] a month, she’ll save, or her parents will buy it, or she’ll go to Hong Kong and buy it there. And if they can’t afford LV, they’ll buy Coach.’
Mrs Loeng was in her early 40s, smartly dressed in a dark business suit and herself carrying a stylish black leather bag stamped with a discreet BV. Bottega Veneta. She had bought it on a trip to Europe.
Shanghai is China’s New York, its Paris, its Milan. On Huai Hai Road people were noticeably well dressed, the air lightly perfumed with the scent of money. It was a couple of days before the start of Golden Week – a week-long national holiday inaugurated by the government in 1999 to stimulate tourism and shopping – and a group of young men who had commandeered a neighbouring table as a base from which to bombard passers-by with discount shopping vouchers were joking boisterously among themselves. ‘Can you keep the noise down!’ Mrs Loeng said. ‘We’re trying to talk.’
Mrs Loeng ran her own internet company. She was married to an executive in the electronics industry, and they had a 14-year-old daughter. She worked from 9am until 8pm every day. Her husband travelled constantly.
‘In China we work much, much harder than in Britain or the USA.’ She and her husband had met at university. He went on to train in engineering; she took a job with a state company. ‘We were following how our parents had lived,’ she told me. ‘State companies were reliable.’
She lived in a company flat with two friends; when she married, her husband moved in with them. Then one of her colleagues took the step of leaving to work for a foreign firm. Mrs Loeng was emboldened to follow her example. At the same time, her husband left his job in the state sector, and also joined a foreign company. ‘The stimulus was, “Everyone’s safe in their new jobs, I can do that too.” You had to have some courage to make that decision.’
Two years ago Mrs Loeng decided to set up her own company. It was not easy to be entrepreneurial in China, she said. ‘There are no incentives; the tax is very heavy; life is made difficult for you.’ And then there was the question of guanxi, the connections to those that matter – and this usually meant members of the Communist Party – which determined progress and status at every level of Chinese life.
‘Banks,’ one Western businessman had told me, ‘lend money where the Party tells them to. They’ll lend it to a property company – the bank manager’s Party friend or whatever; or they’ll lend it to a state-owned enterprise. They certainly won’t take a chance on someone setting up a little internet company.’
‘My husband and I chose a life path,’ Mrs Loeng said. They had worked hard, shown initiative. In Western terms, we might say they had followed their dream. And yet…
Ten years ago their lives had seemed better than those of their state-employed friends. But that was no longer the case. Her husband’s old friends had promotions, pay rises. Theoretically, she went on, these people could not earn so much money. But in practice they were much better off. There were countless perks – bonuses, gifts, shopping coupons, even lavatory paper. It was guanxi. ‘All we earn is our salary. In the state sector there is more social status. We are outside the system; they are inside the system.’
Recently, she said, she and her husband ran into one of one her husband’s old classmates on a flight to Beijing. ‘We were flying economy,’ she said. ‘They were in first class.’
In China the trains all run on time. And I had never encountered a more efficient ticketing procedure. Buy a ticket at a machine and it automatically selects your carriage and seat number. To buy the ticket, every passenger must show their identity card (or in my case, passport). It is not to suggest that they are watching you – whoever they may be – but, if necessary, they do know where you are going.
In Suzhou station, 20 minutes up the line from Shanghai, I paused for coffee in a garishly lit fast-food outlet. In search of the lavatories, I stumbled into a cyber cafe – a cavernous room enveloped in a Stygian gloom, illuminated by the ghostly flicker of computer screens, where some 100 young men sat hypnotised at their keyboards. One dozed with his head on the desk. It was 9.30am.
According to figures published by the China Internet Network Information Centre (CINIC) there are some 538 million internet users, or ‘netizens’, in China – roughly 78 per cent of the urban population, and 40 per cent of the overall population, and the biggest internet population in the world. In a society where displays of individualism are discouraged, young Chinese in particular have embraced the net with a religious fervour, as a means of both relaxation and personal expression.
According to CINIC, more than half of internet users are under 25, each spending an average of 16.5 hours online per week, with online music, video and gaming their favourite activities. (Another survey, in 2010 by the Shanghai Teenage Research Centre, suggested that many teenagers feel happier surfing the internet than spending time with family or friends.) ‘The one-child policy means that children living in the cities don’t have brothers and sisters to play with,’ Mrs Loeng said. ‘The internet is a society for them, and a way of escaping the pressure. There is so much pressure for children in China.’
In her daughter’s class at school, students were graded every day, pressurised by teachers who are themselves under pressure to ensure their students go on to ‘level one’ universities. ‘There is only time for studies, nothing else. My daughter likes to draw, she is very creative. Should I tell her to give that up to study harder at maths? I don’t want to kill her creativity. That’s the dilemma.’ Mrs Loeng and her husband were now thinking it would be better to send their daughter to be educated in America.
The biggest internet company in China – and the second biggest (by number of users) in the world – is Tencent. Founded in 1998 by the entrepreneur Pony Ma, Tencent is now the most valuable privately owned brand in China, worth $6.8 billion. The company’s principal driver is QQ – a platform for instant messaging, games, video streams and social media sites, including Tencent Weibo – one of the two principal ‘microblogging’ sites in China – domestic versions of Twitter.
Tencent’s Beijing office is in Zhongguancun, an area to the north of the city known as China’s Silicon Valley. I was ushered through an imposing marble foyer, up to a sixth-floor office where a group of employees had gathered, including Yang Ruichin, the deputy editor of QQ, an elegant woman in her early 30s, and Yang Fu, the director of technology of QQ’s online media group. He had visited England and Scotland, he told me – careful to make the distinction. ‘Actually, I preferred Scotland. I ate haggis every morning.’
QQ has a staggering 752 million registered users (including Mrs Loeng’s teenage daughter; people often have more than one account, for work or friends), accounting, Yang Ruichin told me, for more than 90 per cent of all Chinese ‘netizens’.
‘The internet is a major social phenomenon,’ she said. ‘Young people in China are becoming very open-minded and willing to accept new information. They want to absorb new and trendy things from the outside world, and know different kinds of lifestyles.’
Tencent employs more than 20,000 people in its two principal offices, in Beijing and Shenzhen, as well as having subsidiary offices in other cities throughout China, and in the United States and Vietnam. Their average age is 28.
A young woman from the public relations department switched on her Macbook and projected a series of graphs and flow-charts on to a screen, demonstrating the range of the company’s products – instant messaging, games, streams for music, fashion and sport. Tencent sent a team to London for the Olympics, and its interviews with Chinese athletes were watched by more than 200 million a day; a historical drama about the Qing Dynasty, The Palace, received a billion unique hits. ‘I think we can say the website has already replaced traditional TV,’ Yang Fu said. ‘Many people don’t watch television nowadays – they use their mobile device because they are so busy.’
‘This was also very popular,’ said the young woman from public relations. She pulled up a video of China’s equivalent of the viral YouTube hit ‘Charlie bit my finger’ – ‘the Yan Cen monk’ – a monk being harrassed by a monkey while he attempts to give a discourse on cherishing life. Everybody laughed uproariously. The Yan Cen monk now has his own Weibo account.
Tencent’s business model is built on what it describes as its ‘value-added service’. Membership of QQ is free, but members must pay to upgrade to various groups within the service, enabling access to games, music and QQ Show, which allows users to buy clothes and hairstyles for their ‘avatar’, or digital image.
‘It satisfies the desire of the young people to look fashionable,’ Yang Ruichin said. ‘They really care about their online image; they want to present themselves as a better-looking person, and it’s a good way to make friends.’ Clothes and accessories on QQ Show range in price from one to 10 yuan (£1). That’s very cheap, I said. Yang Ruichin smiled. ‘We have 700 million users. If they want to pay a cheap price, we will have a big revenue.’ It is estimated that Tencent generates $47 million a month in direct-user payments, accounting for 80 per cent of its revenue. Only 16 per cent of Facebook’s revenue comes from user payments rather than advertising. ‘I heard that Facebook is studying our business model,’ Yang said.
Conventional wisdom has it, I said, that the West innovates and China copies. ‘At present, the Western companies do have some cutting-edge products,’ Yang Fu said. ‘We need to learn from them. But we are innovating, too.’ So could he foresee a time when users in London and New York would be logging on to QQ as their principal internet portal? ‘I hope we can have that vision of the future. For now I think English is such a dominant language. Tencent is still a Chinese company. But in maybe 10 years, I think Chinese companies – for example Tencent – will be the global leaders in the field.’
According to Communist Party history, until the ascendancy of Mao and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China had suffered a long history of oppression by ‘the three towering mountains’ – imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism. These were the obstacles that needed to be overcome to build a new China.
Today the term has a quite different meaning. The average urban Chinese will talk of another ‘three towering mountains’ – a house, a car and money – the three obstacles to be overcome to achieve a comfortable middle-class life. (I heard another variation on this, describing young ‘strivers’ alone in a big city and unable to find a relationship because of the ‘three towering mountains’ of no money, no time and no connections.)
How to pay the mortgage, the bills, educate the child, provide for old age – it was what almost every conversation I had in China came round to in the end. For 40 years China’s experiment in ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ proceeded on the basis of an unspoken pact between the government and the governed: we will continue to deliver economic growth, and you will continue to accept the political settlement as it is.
But there is increasing evidence that this pact is fraying. While hundreds of millions have enjoyed a rising standard of living, basic democratic values such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are as remote as ever. And the rising middle classes now find themselves assailed by all the anxieties of middle-class life in Western society, but exacerbated by singular Chinese characteristics. Among these are concerns over the environment, food safety and forcible evictions, which have led to an escalating number of public protests, or what the government calls ‘mass group incidents’. In 1993 there were approximately 8,700 such incidents; in 2006 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated the number exceeded 90,000. They are now so frequent that the government has stopped releasing figures.
Then there are more prosaic concerns. Under Mao ‘the iron rice bowl’ guaranteed full employment and state provision in education, housing and health care from the cradle to the grave. But that safety net was largely swept away in the market reforms of the 1980s. While education is notionally free between the ages of six and 15, even to get a child into the ‘right’ kindergarten can involve substantial ‘administration fees’. Universities pump out six million graduates a year, all with high expectations of jobs in an increasingly competitive market.
Virtually unknown under the command economy of the 1960s and 70s, when jobs were assigned by the government, unemployment now hovers around 56 million, or 4.1 per cent. (The enormous size and high mobility of the workforce leads to wild statistical variations in this figure. The registered unemployment rate covers only urban residents registered with the authorities, and some experts have estimated that the true rate in 2009 was 14.2 per cent. In 2010 Zhou Tianyong, a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, stated that an estimated 30 million rural migrants and more than nine million graduates were in search of jobs, and warned that unemployment will be a major long-term economic and social problem in China.)
The one-child policy, introduced in 1978, which restricts married urban couples to one child (affecting 40 per cent of the country’s population), has created a population time bomb. There are more than 110 million people over the age of 65 in China. By 2030 there will be almost 230 million, an enormous burden on those in work.
China traditionally has a culture of saving, but uncertainty over the future, particularly the cost of health care in old age, means that the average family endeavours to save between 30 and 40 per cent of their disposable income – compared with one per cent in America. This presents a dilemma for the government, whose economic plans depend on the Chinese spending more and saving less to boost domestic consumption, and which has led to a major rethink about the necessity of rebuilding the welfare state that was so carelessly demolished.
‘We’ve got two generations of single children that not only don’t have any brothers or sisters but also don’t have any aunts or uncles,’ Paul French, the chief China analyst for the research company Mintel, says. ‘They’re married, and if they live in a city like Beijing or Shanghai, they’ve got a lot of pressure on them: very high mortgages rates, rising living costs, a lot of pressure in the job market, a wife who wants Louis Vuitton; got to have a car, got to have a holiday, a little emperor who wants everything and has to go to Harvard. And you’ve now got Mum and Dad and the in-laws living into their 90s.
‘For years, the Chinese have been told, “This is our moment,”’ he went on. ‘Then all of a sudden along come these things that say, “Actually, it may not be your moment.” The problems may outweigh the benefits. You’re probably going to get old before you get rich. You’re probably going to be a squeezed middle class before you’re a corpulent middle class. You’ve risen really quickly but you’re going to fall really quickly. You’ve stacked these problems up and the chickens will come home to roost. That’s a very nervous thing for people at the moment.’
‘Actually life can be very tough,’ Mr Gau told me. We had fallen into conversation in a cafe in Shanghai, where he had seen me writing in my notebook and introduced himself. I was constantly struck by the inquisitiveness and friendliness of the Chinese. He was snatching a few minutes at lunchtime from his job as a shipping agent. ‘Health care is very expensive,’ Mr Gau went on. ‘If you have a big operation it costs a lot of money, sometimes tens of thousands of yuan – in some cases hundreds of thousands. And education is not equal in China. Rich people enjoy a better education. Before, the children of a poor family could get a better education to get to the higher classes, but now they don’t have too many chances to get to the top.
‘Then we must pay the house loan every month, and save some money for medicare, particularly for the future when you retire. The advantage is that ordinary people can enjoy a better life than before. But the disadvantage is we have to pay too much money, and there is a lack of social security.’
How much, he asked, did British people pay in tax. The average is about 30 per cent, I said. ‘Oh, very high!’ He laughed. ‘But at least your tax is used for ordinary people. Not for us.’ He glanced down at my notebook. It was making him uncomfortable. ‘In China,’ he said, ‘the Party controls everything.’
One surprising consequence of the Chinese rush to materialism – and the disenchantments that may arise – has been a rise in Christian worship. In the 1970s the government loosened restrictions on the practice of religion, which had been banned outright by Mao, who regarded it as ‘poison’. The Chinese are now permitted Christian meetings officially sanctioned by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, under the rubric, ‘Love the country – love your religion,’ but they are forbidden religious activity outside approved places of worship. The government acknowledges 14 million ‘registered’ Christians in China, but some believe the true figure is closer to 80 million, swelled by the numbers attending ‘house churches’, which are officially banned. More Chinese attend church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe. ‘It’s become quite fashionable,’ a woman in Shanghai told me. ‘But I don’t know how many people actually believe.’
The Protestant Glory Church in Wuhan was founded in 1931 and was originally named Griffith Church to commemorate the British missionary John Griffith. During the era of Mao, the church was used as a paper factory. It was reopened in 1980 and now has a membership of 1,200. When I arrived at 9am on a Sunday morning, congregants from the 7.30am service were spilling out on to the street, and the church was rapidly filling for the 9.30 service – a smartly dressed congregation of all ages greeting each other warmly. Women outnumbered men by two to one. Fans circled slowly in the high wooden ceiling, doing little to alleviate the stifling heat. A security camera attached to a balcony looked down on the altar, where a video projection of a golden cross floated on a sea of fluffy clouds.
A remarkably young priest led the opening prayers, mentioning ongoing deliberations among the Party hierarchy over who would be steering China for the next 10 years. ‘May God choose the right leader.’ His place was taken by an equally young woman priest, who delivered the sermon. On she went, at interminable length; people began to whisper, or to doze. It required true faith to sit through this every Sunday.
I made my way to the church office. The senior priest, the Rev Hu Kai Ming, a smiling man in his 40s, said he was due to officiate at a wedding, but he could spare me a few minutes. Christianity had not died under Mao, he said, merely gone underground. ‘For 25 years belief was stamped on, but even then there were still lots of believers, they still had their faith; they would do their small ceremonies in their homes.’
Since 1979, he said, the opening of the market had brought more wealth to China; many people now were satisfied in their material lives, ‘and for some people there is no end to the pursuit of material satisfaction. But others are seeking more than that.’ Many of his congregation, he went on, feel the stress of modern life. ‘They have problems with money, problems at home. That’s why they come here, seeking peace. After every service we have a period of consultation where people can talk with the priest, and they will give them guidance and help solve their problems. Religious belief is a great help in these matters.’
So was the Church providing a community of support lacking in society at large? Reverend Hu paused. His expression suggested I was on dangerous ground. ‘Community’ is one of those words that belong to the government, not to be usurped by the Church or anyone else. ‘The Church provides a place of love,’ he said at last, ‘and in that way it makes our society more harmonious.’ It was the perfect, politic answer.
I sat in the balcony for the wedding service – it lasted no more than minutes – then went outside to see the bride and groom leave the church. A gleaming Porsche Panamera was waiting to bear them away. ‘I’m not sure marriage these days is such a good idea,’ my translator said. She had a point. Since 2003, when a change in the law made it easier to marry and divorce, the divorce rate in China has rocketed. Nearly two million couples divorced in 2010 – almost twice the number who married; one in five marriages now ends in divorce. One commentator has attributed this to a ‘stronger sense of self’.
In Beijing I had dinner with a young man named Ri. He was in his late 20s, a university graduate who managed a website for a beauty business. He described himself as a Marxist, and his coruscating views on the ‘commodification of women’ suggested a distinctly ambivalent attitude towards his work. His favourite musicians were Iggy Pop and the Sex Pistols. ‘Tell me,’ he said at one point, ‘is Scotland still fighting for its independence?’ as if it were guerrilla warfare.
Rather than defining the middle class by income or what they owned, he said, he would define them as those ‘most against the government’: people who were educated enough to see the failings of the system, and the lack of opportunity it afforded them.
‘In America, a poor guy like Bill Gates with hard work can become the richest guy in the world, but that wouldn’t happen in China. People can be well educated and work hard but most of the rewards will go to the 10 per cent who are already wealthy, government officials and their friends. Most successful young people who have better jobs have got them because their father is wealthy or a government official. When the father is rich, the son will be rich and the grandson will be rich. If the father is poor, the son will be poor and the grandson will be poor.’
In his book As China Goes, So Goes the World the Oxford academic Karl Gerth identifies four groups of China’s new rich – ‘each emerging at a different stage of the reforms and each increasingly offensive to ordinary Chinese’. First were the small-scale entrepreneurs – getihu – who sprang up in the early years of the reforms. Second were the children of high-ranking officials, ‘princelings’ who in the 1980s got rich by what became known as ‘official racketeering’, using connections to gain control of surplus products generated by state enterprises. Third were the land-speculators, whose Party connections enabled them to purchase choice parcels of land and secure loans from state-owned banks. The fourth group are former managers of state-owned companies, who became wealthy during the rapid, notably corrupt conversion of public enterprises into private and stockholder-owned companies in the 1990s.
One way to assess disparity in wealth, Gerth says, is the Gini coefficient, a standard international measure that ranges from 0 (everyone owns the same amount) to 1 (one person owns everything). China’s Gini coefficient has increased by more than 50 per cent in the past two decades. In 2009 it stood at 0.46, ranking China as more unequal than many Latin American and African countries.
Mrs Loeng put it more pithily. ‘In Mao’s time China was the most equal society in the world. Now it’s the most unequal.’ Nowhere is this more evident than in China’s ruling class. In 2011 the net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress was 565.8 billion yuan, a gain of 13 per cent from 2010.
In March this year officials attending the NPC were photographed with expensive handbags, Hermès belts and Rolex watches, prompting derision on the Weibo microblogging sites – this a month after a government ban on officials using public funds to buy luxury goods and expensive liquor to grease business deals and impress peers.
Microblogging arrived in China in 2009, when the Chinese government, following its policy of ‘blocking and copying’ Western websites, blocked access to Twitter, authorising a domestic equivalent, Sina Weibo (‘weibo’ means microblog). Sina Weibo now claims to have 500 million registered users; Tencent Weibo, which launched in 2010, claims 469 million registered users. (The government blocking policy has not been completely effective: many Chinese get ‘over the firewall’ by using a foreign-based server. It is estimated that some 500,000 Chinese are on Facebook, and 300,000 on Twitter.)
If China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is the most effective tool of internet control and censorship in the world, Weibo can be seen as a hammer and chisel, challenging the official monopoly on information – a forum of protest and accountability. Weibo conforms to Twitter’s model of 140 characters – but Chinese characters convey more information than English words. One Chinese tweet is roughly equivalent to three and a half in English, meaning a Weibo microblog is less like a headline, more like a story.
Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of Weibo’s power as a tool of ‘citizen journalism’ came in July 2011, when authorities in Zhejiang province tried to cover up evidence of China’s first high-speed rail crash, in the city of Wenzhou, in which 40 died, by ordering the derailed carriages to be hastily buried. In the first five days after the crash there were more than 10 million postings on Weibo showing images of the wreckage being shovelled into pits.
The attempted cover-up prompted a national debate about the cost of China’s rapid economic progress. ‘If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed?’ asked the prominent CCTV (China Central Television) anchorman Qiu Qiming on 24 Hours. ‘Can we drink a glass of milk that’s safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall apart? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury trains?’
‘Weibo has created the biggest social debate ever in Chinese history,’ Michael Anti, a leading blogger and political commentator, told me. ‘For the first time ever there is one platform to which everyone can have easy access. For the first time, Chinese people are talking to each other.’
I met Anti in a Starbucks, hidden away in a luxury shopping mall in Beijing. It took 15 minutes of exploring the two gleaming marbled floors before I found it, passing every luxury outlet twice – sleek sales assistants hovering at their doors like hungry wasps. None seemed to have any customers. An earnest-looking man in his early 30s, Anti was studying an American Congressional Report when I walked in. ‘I don’t like to waste time,’ he said.
Anti, whose real name is Zhao Zhing, has 40,000 followers on Weibo and a further 60,000 on Twitter. Weibo, Anti says, may look like the instrument of the largest unleashing of democracy in Chinese history – but it’s more complicated than that.
The Chinese government was quick to recognise the threat posed by the internet. In 2000 the Bureau for Supervising the Security of Public Information Networks (BSSPIN) was established to monitor and control the net-based activities of ‘hostile organisations and individuals in and outside Chinese borders’. According to a Washington Post story in 2004, 30,000 ‘internet security people’ were employed by the BSSPIN. Most commentators believe the present figure is much higher, supplemented by censors employed by the internet companies who manually search and delete social network posts. A recent study by Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science of 11 million posts made on Chinese social media websites – but excluding Weibo – concluded that roughly 13 per cent of all blog posts in China are censored.
Part of the mandate of the BSSPIN was to establish a network of ‘control nodes’ at provincial levels for information surveillance and control. But it is believed that since 2009 all Weibo servers have been under the control of central government in Beijing. Thus Weibo has become a tool by which central government can allow the venting of grievances against provincial malfeasance, but without threat to the power at the centre. The question about the Wenzhou train crash, Anti says, is not why 10 million people were microblogging about it, but why the Chinese government allowed that outpouring of information.
‘Weibo is a heaven for the central government,’ he told me, ‘but a disaster for the local government. It’s less a picture of internet freedom and more a picture of 1984, because central government controls all the data.’
While revelations about corrupt provincial officials may be allowed to run their course on the net, certain keywords – ‘demonstration’, ‘protest’, names of senior Party officials, or criticism of central government policy – will be automatically deleted or filed for investigation. Activist bloggers have become adept at wordplay and euphemism. Pitched against them are the Wu Mao Deng, or ’50-cent party’ – private citizens allegedly paid to post messages favourable to the government. ‘Nothing the government itself says on social media channels is believed,’ one China analyst told me. ‘But it’s often hard to know who is saying what and why.’
Sitting in a cafe in Shanghai, reading the English language version of China Daily, I came across a story about Yang Dacai, a provincial bureau director in Shaanxi province, who had been dismissed after photographs appeared on social media of him smiling at the scene of a traffic accident in which 36 people died. Yang found himself targeted by internet users in what is known as a ‘human flesh search’ – a sort of online ‘netizen’ vigilantism – with further photographs of him wearing 11 different luxury wristwatches being posted by Weibo users. Yang claimed he had bought them with his own money.
‘What’s a provincial official going to do?’ Anti said. ‘Call Beijing and ask them to delete references to their wristwatches? If people think local thugs have been sacked by the central government because of their protest, that’s brilliant for central government. And it’s true, in the past three years, local government has started to become more transparent. But democracy, by definition, should mean national democracy.’
The market and the internet, Anti said, were ‘the two sources of Chinese freedom’. ‘The market has given us the place to make money without government intervention. The internet has given us a way to understand the truths of the world. But that in itself does not bring democracy.
‘Before 2009 I think more people were more positive about democracy. After 2009 when Weibo came, less so. You will never have democracy through strengthening the power of the central government. Democracy is the devolution of power from the centre. It doesn’t mean democracy will never happen. But the decisive power is not the internet, it’s always the economy. When the Chinese economy collapses, I think democracy will be an option.’
And when, I asked, did he think that would be?
Anti swallowed his coffee, and rose to leave. ‘I think in seven years we can reach mass democracy.’
Seven years… I walked back through the luxury shopping mall. The wasps were still hovering, waiting for people with money.